Exploring HR power outside the organisation: The case of Independent HR Consultants

Nick Wylie

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The lack of occupational closure has long been acknowledged as one cause of the HR profession’s problem with power and influence (Armstrong, 1989; Wright, 2008). Seen through the lens of professionalisation theories (e.g. Abbott, 1988) HR has failed to establish jurisdiction over key practices and so has found its expert power challenged by different specialisms or alternative occupations (Caldwell and Storey, 2007; Wylie et al., 2014). In response there have been repeated calls for changes to the internal organisation of the HR function, the role of the HR manager and the competency base of HR professionals (Caldwell, 2008; Ulrich and Brockbank, 2005; Vosburgh, 2007). Most of these calls have been based on the assumption that power will emerge from the ability of HR departments to deliver added value and achieve strategic impact (Withers et al., 2010; Sheehan et al., 2014). However, despite these being standard demands placed upon any HR function, such assertions appear to have done little to allow HR to break out of the paradoxes first identified by Karen Legge nearly three decades ago (Legge, 1978).
In some respects this suggests a depressing picture of HR trapped in a cycle of low status and credibility and so forever to be condemned as the ‘poor cousin’ of management functions (Bresnan and Fowler, 1996). However, it is important to note that this picture is based on studies that consider HR practitioners in isolation from other corporate or managerial professions (Muzio et al., 2011) and almost exclusively focus on organisationally based HR Managers, operating within traditional HR departments. This paper adopts an alternative approach to the question of HR power by examining HR professionals operating outside the boundaries of the traditional HR function as Independent HR consultants (IHRCs). These IHRCs are not employed by Professional Service Firms but operate as individual consultants or interim managers offering advice and other services to a range of clients. IHRCs are becoming an increasingly important sub-group within the wider HR profession as downsizing and outsourcing lead many HR managers to leave familiar HR roles and find alternative avenues for their expert knowledge and insight. However, little is known about the challenges of operating as an IHRC, the precise reasons for making the transition to this role, the relationship between IHRCs and their HR clients and, most importantly, the wider implications of this work for power and the HR profession.
Drawing on theories from the sociology of the professions (Abbott, 1988; Muzio et al., 2011) as well as critical accounts of consultancy work (Sturdy, 2009) the paper analyses some initial findings from a study of IHRCs. This qualitative study examines how IHRCs establish their status and credibility with clients by asserting claims to expertise and adopting a fluid association with the wider HR profession. The paper argues that, in some instances, the route to professional credibility for HR practitioners may lie in roles that no longer depend upon stable relationships that exist within traditional organisational boundaries. The paper concludes by suggesting that this has significant implications for how the HR profession as a whole asserts its power through jurisdictional claims over core activities and does so in competition with other similar corporate professions (Muzio et al., 2011).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 Jul 2017
Event10th Critical Management Studies Conference - Britannia Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Jul 20175 Jul 2017
Conference number: 10


Conference10th Critical Management Studies Conference
Abbreviated titleCMS 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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